Ian Ballantine Paperback Pioneer
Founder of Bantam Books Inc. and Ballantine Books
Founded: 1945 (Bantam), 1952 (Ballantine)
The founder of both Bantam Books Inc. and Ballantine Books, Ian Ballantine has been called "the father of the mass-market paperback." A literary visionary, unafraid to take chances on new writers, he has been credited with launching the careers of such bestselling authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl and Tom Robbins. Ballantine's revolutionary strategy of offering affordable books to the general public made Ballantine Books one of America's largest publishers and laid the groundwork for the modern paperback industry.
The son of Scottish actor and sculptor Edward James Ballantine and theater publicist Stella (Commins) Ballantine, Ian initially had no particular interest in a business career. That changed, however, when a thesis Ballantine wrote on selling books in the United States while studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science caught the attention of Penguin Books Ltd. founder Allen Lane. In the thesis, Ballantine pointed out a loophole in the copyright law that would allow the importation of low-cost British paperbound books into the United States, something no publisher was doing at the time.
Intrigued by the tremendous moneymaking potential of this new market opportunity, Lane hired the 23-year-old Ballantine to organize and open a New York office of Penguin Books with the sole purpose of importing and distributing British books. Ballantine headed the office from 1939 to 1945. During that time, he realized there was a large potential market for paperbound reprints of books by American authors as well. Lane balked at the idea, but Ballantine was convinced it would work. So in 1945, he left Penguin and established Bantam Books Inc. to mass-market pocket-sized paperback reprints of hardcover novels. Early Bantam titles included works of great American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Zane Grey, Mark Twain and James Thurber.
While he was president and director of Bantam, Ballantine began to study the trends in mass reading tastes, and discovered a virtually untapped market for cheap paperbacks in an audience that couldn't afford the more expensive hardbacks. At the time, few publishers produced original paperbacks. Most of the paperbacks on the market were merely reprints of books originally printed in hardcover versions. To capitalize on the new market Ballantine uncovered, Bantam began producing a line of original books written solely to be published as inexpensive paperbacks. These 25-cent paperbacks were an immediate hit with middle- and working-class readers. And although most of Bantam's sales came from its line of fiction books--science fiction, western and horror titles with lurid covers that often depicted scantily clad women in suggestive poses--there were also some bestsellers among Bantam's nonfiction titles.
Determined to find out just how accurately he had predicted which books would appeal to the American reading public, Ballantine created a unique market research technique that would later become an industry standard. He sent people directly to book dealers to find out how many copies of each Bantam title were sold in key cities during a specific period of time. The results of the impromptu survey proved that Ballantine did indeed have a knack for picking bestsellers. Between 1945 and 1948, his company averaged less than 1 percent of its books returned, a rate unheard of in the industry. Encouraged by the results, Ballantine announced that Bantam would begin a new marketing program for its bestsellers and would publish a monthly list of its eight leading reprint titles. This bestseller list, the first of its kind in the industry, greatly increased the sales of Bantam books as the public clamored to get its hands on the books "everyone was reading."
Ballantine's next groundbreaking innovation would come, literally, as the result of an accident. During a vacation in 1950, Ballantine broke his leg skiing. Forced to take a leave of absence from Bantam while he recovered, Ballantine used the time to formulate what David Dempsey of The New York Times Book Review calls "the most far-reaching development to hit Publisher's Row in a long time." Dempsey predicted that if it was successful, Ballantine's plan "could radically transform the whole conventional publishing setup."
The plan Ballantine formulated was to establish Ballantine Books, a new publishing house that would produce original fiction and nonfiction in hardbound editions starting at $1.50, while simultaneously releasing 35-cent paperbound editions. The hardbound editions, designed to appeal to the smaller "literary" market, would be offered only through bookstores, while Ballantine paperbacks would be sold from newsstands, where they could reach a larger audience and would not compete with the higher-priced hardcover editions.
It was truly a revolutionary idea. At the time, paperback versions were only published after a book had completely lost its momentum in hardcover. The controversial plan immediately caused a row among publishers who feared not only that no one would purchase the higher-priced hardbound editions, thereby driving bookstores out of business, but also that authors might lower the quality of their writing for mass production.
But Ballantine was a dedicated student of human nature, not to mention a brilliant marketer, and he had already figured out how to overcome such objections. First, he offered to co-publish with any publishers of hardbound books who wished to submit books on a single title basis. He explained to his fellow publishers that the additional capital generated by the cheaper paperbound editions would enable them to publish a greater number of hardcover books each year, thereby increasing their overall sales.
Second, to allay the fear that the quality of the books might suffer, Ballantine approached the Author's Guild Council of the Author's League of America with a unique proposal. He offered to pay authors a royalty of 10 percent on hardcover editions and 8 percent on paperbound editions, with a minimum guarantee of $5,000 in three months after publication. This represented a substantial increase in the royalty generally paid on paperback reprints, and, Ballantine claimed, would make it possible for the average author to devote full time to his or her writing instead of writing in the hours left over from a more lucrative job.
Some critics still lambasted Ballantine's plan, but they were quickly silenced when, contrary to what they'd predicted, the bottom did not fall out of the hardbound book market. Instead, sales of both paperback and hardbound books boomed.
Encouraged by the success of his plan, Ballantine set out to publish as many paperbound originals as possible. Originally, he'd planned to publish 30 titles a year, but by 1953, sales were so brisk he doubled the output to 60, or five per month. Although Ballantine initially focused on science fiction, publishing original books by such acclaimed authors as Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Philip K. Dick (Martian Time-Slip), Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), he later branched out to other genres, including fantasies, westerns and mysteries.
Ballantine also broke new ground by publishing books that were ordinarily considered too literary for the paperbound market, including the favorably reviewed collections New Poems by American Poets, New Short Novels (which featured works by Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Etnier, Clyde Miller and Shelby Foote) and the bestselling The Best American Short Stories.
With Ballantine at the helm, Ballantine Books continued to flourish throughout the 1960s and 1970s, becoming America's largest publisher of mass-market paperback books. After selling Ballantine Books to Random House in 1973, Ballantine continued to work with selected authors at Bantam. In 1981, Ballantine and his wife, Betty, jointly founded Rufus Publications, which has published high-priced, limited-edition volumes of illustrated art and fantasy books, such as Frank McCarthy's The Old West, Brian Froud's Faeries and James Gurney's Dinotopia.
Nearly 43 years after Ian Ballantine uncovered a publishing pot of gold by establishing the mass-market paperback industry, he passed away in 1995 at his home in Bearsville, New York, leaving behind a living literary legacy that still bears his name. Upon Ballantine's death, bestselling author Tom Robbins commented, "Ian Ballantine took a chance on Another Roadside Attraction [Robbins' first published novel] when nobody else cared or dared. He was a short man. He was a giant."
One of Ballantine Books' most successful and acclaimed ventures wasn't started by Ian Ballantine, but by his wife, Betty. Published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series was the first-ever paperback fantasy series directed at the adult market rather than adolescents. This landmark set of 71 titles included novels, collections and anthologies¬-some reprints, others originals-and featured some of the finest fantastic literature ever written, including works by such esteemed writers as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allen Poe and even William Shakespeare.